Editorial credit: Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash
Written by: Mark Johnson
You might think it unlikely that a girl raised as one of six children in a middle class family in Guatemala City would grow up to be one of the world’s foremost research scientists. But if you knew Carolina Barillas-Mury, you would understand. Her keen intelligence and vibrant personality come across the moment you meet her. Carolina’s career achievements are impressive: they include a tenured position as Distinguished Investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a Sanofi-Pasteur Award for contributions to neglected and tropical diseases, and election to the the US National Academies of Sciences. She lives with her family in Maryland; her husband is an engineer and a systems analyst at NIH, and they have a 13 year old daughter who loves to write.
Today she studies mosquitoes and how to block the transmission of malaria, work that may impact the future of millions of people around the globe. Her story is one of family support, strong female leadership, and the value of education.
Barillas-Mury at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, circa 1997. Image courtesy of Douglas Seeley
Carolina was born in 1961 to a family with deep roots in Guatemala. With dark hair and sparkling brown eyes, she is of mixed northern and southern European and Mayan ancestry. Carolina’s parents divorced when she was 2, leaving her mother to raise her family alone. When Carolina was 15, her father was killed in a car accident, and her mother became her family’s sole financial support. “I remember sometimes money was tight, and I once asked my mother if we were poor. She thought about it and said, ‘Well, no, we have a house, we have enough food, we have books, and there is love. When you have those things, you are not poor.’ So I never thought of myself as poor.” Carolina recognizes her mother as one of the greatest influences in her life. “My mother was always in charge–she took decisions, and never asked anybody. So I thought that was normal. It never occurred to me that being a woman, it could be any other way.”
Motivated to be independent as soon as possible, Carolina dedicated herself to her studies. She soon graduated from high school in Guatemala City at Colegio Monte Maria, a Catholic girls’ school of Maryknoll nuns who emphasize both academic excellence and service to society. However, choosing a career path was challenging. “My problem was, I wanted to do something different every week. [First] I wanted to be a diplomat; then I wanted to be an engineer, then a mathematician. I liked everything. Which I think is a good [problem] to have!”
In Carolina’s family, education was always of primary importance: “My family has never had a lot of money, but we were always highly educated. For example, my grandmother’s father was a judge, and the next generation were lawyers. My father was a medical doctor, and my great-uncle was ambassador to the United Nations and a judge. On the Swiss side, my grandfather’s goal was that everyone have access to higher education if they wanted it. In our family, anyone who wanted to go to college had college fully paid for by their parents… That is our inheritance.”
Carolina eventually decided to pursue medicine for two reasons: first because of the excellent medical training available in Guatemala, and second because she saw that there was important work to be done. She finished her Bachelor of Science degree at 19, and by age 24 had completed medical school. Her research thesis (studying the effect of yeast-derived beta-galactosidase on lactose malabsorption) was one of the first to demonstrate the effectiveness of Lact-Aid in children.
At the hospital, she loved the patients, but clinical work was difficult. Public hospitals in Guatemala are undersupplied and understaffed. They are also very hierarchical, with a culture of “the boss is always right”, leaving very little room for discussion, opinions, and exchange of ideas.
Fortunately, Carolina was exposed to the excitement of research science early on. During medical school, she completed a four-month rotation at Instituto de Nutrición de Centroamérica y Panamá (INCAP) with biochemist Dr. Oscar Pineda, where she was encouraged to ask questions, inquire, challenge, and learn. She found her work there fascinating and intellectually stimulating. But there were (and are) no advanced research degrees in biology available in Guatemala. In an article from October 2014 in The NIH Catalyst, Carolina joked that, “dreaming of becoming a research scientist was like saying you’re going to be an astronaut in a country without a space program”. To become a research scientist, she would need get a PhD abroad.
Carolina explains, “When I realized I wanted to be a scientist, and I couldn’t do it in Guatemala, I had to try. It wasn’t clear I could make it, but I wanted to at least try so I would have no regrets.”
Carolina attributes her openness to taking an unlikely (if not risky) path through life to her family history. There was precedent for going abroad to pursue one’s dreams. “When my grandfather left Switzerland at the age of 19, he had nothing [guaranteed]. He just had a job for six months. The idea that you could go to a new place with nothing, and do what you wanted to do, is part of our story.”
Carolina’s great-uncle worked in the Guatemalan embassy in Berlin for 8 years, returning on the eve of World War II. He lived with her family for part of his life, and influenced her perspective on the world. “He had a very broad view of the world. He would talk to us about history and geography, and would give us dimes if we could find countries and capitals on a map, and tell stories about things that had happened there.”
With no financial resources, she needed a research assistantship or scholarship from an institution abroad. Over the next two years she wrote letters to professors, applying for research positions, and visited embassies, applying for fellowships. She finally landed a research assistantship at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and in 1987 started her PhD fellowship.
The University of Arizona had recently established the Center for Insect Science. Carolina joined the lab of Dr. Mike Wells, one of the first to be developing molecular tools to study insect biology. She helped develop and use these molecular tools to study Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits many viruses, including dengue, yellow fever, zika, and chikungunya. In 1993, after earning a PhD, Carolina was offered the opportunity to study malaria transmission in post-graduate studies at Harvard. This began her passionate quest to find ways to fight this destructive and seemingly intractable disease.
Coming from a medical background in a tropical country, Carolina had seen first-hand the effects of mosquito-borne tropical diseases. Malaria is one of the most devastating diseases in human history, and remains a scourge. Even with bed nets and pesticides, malaria kills an estimated 500,000 people a year, 90% of whom are children in Africa under the age of five. Mortality aside, malaria is a key contributing factor to underdevelopment. In high seasons, everyone in endemic areas is infected 3 or 4 times a year. People receive hundreds of bites a day, with dozens of infected bites. With that rate of infection, the only way to eradicate the disease is to control the vector.
In the early 1960’s, the World Health Organization mounted an international effort to eradicate the mosquitoes that carry malaria, with mixed results. While the mosquito was beaten back in some places, reinfection and pesticide resistance ultimately showed that this strategy would simply not work globally. Part of the problem is that, to be effective, mosquitoes must be eradicated everywhere. Carolina explains: “Even if you eradicate the mosquito in a village, someone infected comes from somewhere else, and within 2-3 years you’re back where you started. Once a single mosquito is infected, it can infect everyone in a home in a night or two.” Carolina’s goal was to understand how mosquitoes carry and pass on the parasite, and perhaps to find a way to block transmission.
After a year at Harvard, Carolina’s adviser, Dr. Fotis Kafatos, moved to Heidelberg, Germany to become the director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, one of the top laboratories of its kind in Europe. Carolina followed him to Germany and worked at EMBL for nearly five years. She obtained Alexander von Humboldt and Swiss National Science Foundation fellowships to fund her research and continued to develop new techniques for studying malaria transmission.
Returning to the U.S. in 1998, Carolina became an Assistant Professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where she started her career as an independent investigator. Then, in 2003, after six years in Colorado, she relocated once again to begin work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, where she still works today. She focused her research on how mosquitoes become infected with malaria.
Why would the infection of mosquitos be of interest? Isn’t it more useful to study how humans get infected? While it is true that some scientists study human infection, there are good reasons to understand how mosquito infection occurs. For a mosquito to infect you, the mosquito must itself be infected. But why doesn’t the mosquito’s immune system attack and eliminate the parasite?
Carolina’s lab has found an answer to this question. “We identified a gene in the parasite…that allows the parasite to become invisible to the mosquito immune system. This gene works like a key that the parasite uses to turn off the mosquito immune system.”
She sees potential for practical applications for her research. “We are going through a very exciting time. My dream would be that some of our discoveries would ultimately lead us to new solutions to prevent malaria transmission… Now we are working on developing a vaccine so that antibodies to this key will remove this weapon from the parasite. This would allow the mosquito to detect the parasite and destroy it so transmission will be much less effective.” This kind of strategy, called a “transmission-blocking vaccine”, could be used in conjunction with other treatments to block the parasite’s life cycle at multiple points. The hope is to eventually stop transmission altogether.
The discovery of the immunity evasion gene, among other things, has led to worldwide recognition for Carolina’s research: four papers in the journal Science, the Bailey K. Ashford Medal for contribution to tropical diseases, the Sanofi-Pasteur Award, and Distinguished Investigator status, awarded to the top 2% of tenured researchers at NIH.
Front of the Bailey K. Ashford medal. Image courtesy of American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene
Back of the Bailey K. Ashford medal. Image courtesy of American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene
Carolina is gently philosophical and accepting of how her life is different from many of her colleagues’. Being Swiss, and Latina, and a woman, all play a part in her unique situation. “At NIH, I don’t think that [being foreign-born] affects my career much. We have people from all over the world. So having an accent and looking funny is normal where I work. [laughs] Being a woman, is a little bit of a challenge, I think. I’m the only [female] tenured faculty in my department; all the rest are male.” She says that having women in a scientific workplace sometimes changes the culture. “How men relate to each other and how females relate is very different…You are a woman, so you want to behave like a woman, but at the same time you have to function in an environment that is very male. Recently we have [been joined by] another female professor, and I think that helps. Once you have two or three women, the culture becomes more neutral, let’s say, friendly to both genders. And I think that’s good, that helps.”
Carolina believes that when you are deciding on a career in science it eventually comes down to your interest and your temperament. “Science is not an easy career…you have to be passionate about it. As a scientist, you spend a lot of your time lost, because you’re going where nobody has been before. You really are a trailblazer, so your job is to be in a state of confusion half the time [laughs]. First, you need to have a love of discovery and finding new things. Second, you need to be flexible, because things change constantly.”
For women entering the field of science, she has more specific advice. “Find something you enjoy doing so you can be happy. Strive for excellence, learn to work with men, learn to communicate well with colleagues. Most people are reasonable, so with good communication I seldom have problems.”
She continues, “The network of female scientists is small. [Having access to] a more senior female scientist is helpful to deal with political or career challenges that may come up. It is important to promote other women in science, as women tend not to be nominated for awards. I had to actively request male colleagues to nominate me. And I keep an eye out for women doing outstanding work and nominate them for awards – that’s key for recognition. Relatively few women make it to senior positions, partly because family building often occurs at the same time as the most demanding period of her career. Plus, it’s harder to socialize casually with male colleagues: going out for a beer, networking, and so on…You need to form your own networks. It’s a cycle–more awards, more funding, more results.”
Carolina Barillas-Mury at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, ca. 2014. Image courtesy of José-Luis Ramírez.
Latino culture is very family-oriented, lending a sense of stability and security that Carolina values. “In Guatemala, four to five generations of my family lived in the same city. So you have roots, you know where you come from, you know who you are and people know you. If you start talking with someone from Guatemala, eventually you’ll find you have a cousin or classmate, someone in common. Even now [after 28 years abroad], there are more people that know me there than anywhere else I have lived.”
Carolina explains how her family branches out to include a large network of people. “You grow up with extended family–aunts, uncles, and cousins. I have 22 immediate cousins, who are all now married and have children. I have no idea how many second cousins there are. Your [family] network connects you to a lot of people. So you’re grounded; it gives you a sense of security. Also,” she adds,” in the Latin way of thinking, you stay at home until you get married. Even when I was living abroad, in Germany, in the United States, my mom still kept a bedroom for me. I always knew I could go home at any time.”
With all her success, Carolina doesn’t lose track of what is important to her in life. She advises women to consider their whole lives when planning a career in science. “In generations before mine, the price for being very successful was you would sacrifice your personal life, never marry, and never have children. A career is great, but it’s not a substitute for a personal life. In my generation, it’s not easy, but it’s possible to balance your career with your personal life. You can be a great scientist, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a woman and a mother at the same time.”
Watch Dr. Carolina Barillas-Mury in action: